Talk to any of the ten thousand people who walk all or part of the Camino every year, and you’ll probably hear the phrase “life-changing”. It’s a travel experience like no other, as befitting its roots as a spiritual pilgrimage…
And it’s a lot of walking.
Not of the rough-going-underfoot variety, thankfully - the way is steady, with few (arguably no) stretches that are genuinely tough on your feet - but it’s demanding in a different way, of the sort where you’re walking steadily, day in and day out, at an unhurried pace that will nevertheless rack up enough miles to profoundly remould your body and mind over time.
I firmly believe everyone needs to take at least one huge walk like this in their life, and the Camino certainly qualifies. But it does require a resetting of your expectations about what a walk should feel like...
Let’s class anything over 10km as a Big Day’s Walk (someone much fitter would disagree, but I’d say 10km is long enough for your brain to start rewiring itself). Go beyond this magical number, and walking will start to weave a special spell on you - and teach you a different mindset to the everyday acts of ambling, strolling or sauntering along for a kilometre or two.
Based on my experience of Big Day’s Walking, here’s what you should expect - with the caveat that when it comes to outdoors experiences, please, believe nothing and test everything for yourself. Consult your own brain, your own heart and your own legs for the actual truth here.
Note: The following insights came mainly from a series of walks I did in the north of England over the course of one week a few years back. On the first day I did 45 km with a fully-laden rucksack, which is as good a definition of stupidity as I’ve ever invented. Subsequent days were of the 15-25 km variety, which felt plenty enough (the average daily rate on the Camino is about 20 km). Your mileage should vary - especially if “45 km in one day” looks like a fun challenge, which it isn’t. It’s agony. Thanks.
1) Starting Walking. This is actually Very Hard, but only because of the 24 hours beforehand, and in particular, the final hour before you set out. Beginning a walk like this is terrifying in advance, and utterly banal when you actually begin. The more you prepare and anticipate, the more freaked out you’ll get, and the more it’ll feel like you’re about to undertake A Great Big Hugely Massive Thing That Requires More Preparation Than You’ve Put In.
Starting should feel like an anticlimax, when suddenly, after all that tension, you’re striding your way down the road and it just feels like a normal walk to the shops to get a pint of milk, except you’ve got company and everyone’s got some kind of bag on their back. This feeling of normality is comforting, so lean into it. Think of this as the first of an entirely normal walks to the shops, all of them strung together, a series of shops you’ll be checking into as the day progresses. Think of it that way.
(And with a bit of luck, when the true reality of it sinks in, you’ll be hours down the road with no option but to continue.)
- Make Sure You’ve Packed Properly. It may seem strange to have this after “Start Walking,” but the first 60 seconds of any walk are always a worried mental ransacking of your possessions, to remember if you’ve left anything behind. This is absolutely normal, and will occur even if you’re one of the organised souls who writes packing lists and ticks them off as they go along.
If within those 60 seconds you discover you’ve missed something, turn around, grab it or acquire it from somewhere, and repack hurriedly, cursing your own stupidity as you do it. This way you’re fuelled with urgency and self-recrimination over the time you’re wasting, instead of initially using your packing-time to lazily delay the start of your walk, which is what we all do when we’re foolishly put in charge of our own schedules. If you’re in a group, congratulations! You don’t have the freedom to dither! Lucky, lucky you.
- Ignore How You Feel For The First Half-Hour. It is not how you’ll feel for the whole thing. Right now, your body is protesting, and your imagination is extrapolating all those minor aches and pains forward into a litany of agony that will escalate until you’re on your hands and knees, sobbing for mercy.
Don’t be fooled. That first half-hour is a lie. It’s there to wake you up - nothing more than that. You’re going to feel a lot better soon.
- Fling Your Senses Open. Once you stretch your limbs and your muscles grow accustomed to moving in this relentless fashion and stop complaining about it, you’ll be able to enjoy your surroundings. The world will feel brimming with endless possibility. Bird-song will delight you. Colours will make you wonder why you never learned to paint. You’ll be entranced by the rich fragrance of the vegetation by the side of the path. The air will smell just terrific.
Nature will work her sensual magic on you. Don’t fight it.
- Accept The Lack Of Progress. Eventually, you’ll get sick of enjoying Nature. Nature’s boring. Are you nearly there yet?
No, you are not nearly there yet. In fact - and this is really hard to accept right now, but you have to try - in terms of your ongoing experience of today, you will never be “nearly there”. It’s an illusion, and it gets in the way of experiencing progress. If you keep wanting to be “almost there,” again and again and again, your willpower will drain away, like someone bleeding to death from a thousand paper-cuts. If you keep one eye on the map, you’ll watch yourself get nowhere. If you mentally dwell on your destination, you will never arrive at it.
So - forget progress. Forget the map. This is your new perpetual, unchanging reality. The scenery goes past, the path rolls under your feet, but you stay right here. You will always be here, walking forward, never arriving. This is simply who you are now. Accept it, take a look around, breathe it all in. Laugh! Or cry. Whatever helps you deal.
- Tea Breaks. Please, enjoy them. When it’s time to stop - for lunch, or for everyone to refill water-bottles, or to admire the view - please, make sure you stop. Accept the stoppingness completely. Every pause in your journey is something to appreciate, because every Big Walk contains moments where you’re weary and feel grubby, and the memory of your last stop should be like a sip of cool water that keeps you going on a blazing hot day (speaking of which: keep hydrating, it’s hot out there). But if you spent that previous stop just itching to be moving onwards, you’ll be disgusted with yourself later. Ungrateful fool. You didn’t know what you had.
- Suffer gently, not foolishly. Sometimes your feet will hurt, your back will ache and your knees will wobble. React to this sensibly, by slowing down a bit, take a breather, and making the most of every rest-stop without fail.
Of course it’s a bit uncomfortable. How often in life do you walk this far? Discomfort is both an understandable reaction from your body, and a sign you’re actually out here, doing this thing properly. Once you accept this, you can get used to it. You can become it. It’s not going to go completely away until you’re done, no matter how many rests you have, but it will get easier if you let it.
So enjoy the novelty of being aware of how not-totally-great you feel, when you’re normally so comfortably unaware of how your body’s feeling. Pay renewed attention to the fleshy, bony house you occupy, and listen to what it’s telling you (eg. “HI THIS IS YOUR LEFT KNEE, I KNOW WE DON’T TALK MUCH NORMALLY BUT TODAY IS GOING TO BE DIFFERENT, OKAY?”).
- Arrive. If you master 1 - 7, you’ll arrive at your destination at some point, and it’ll happen suddenly and messily, like a rushed, badly-written ending to a story that’s been great so far. It might even be as anticlimactic as when you first started walking. Really? That’s it?
Yes, that’s it. You did it. Congratulations! I know you’re not really aware of having got here right now, but no matter. Just fake it: put your bag down, rest your feet, look at the view, and...
Wow. Well, look at that. Seems like you made it there after all.
(No — not there. Here. You made it here.)
But hey, there’s no time to waste. The clock started ticking for tomorrow’s walk. You need dinner, you need a bath, and you need to get a proper night’s sleep. Today’s done, but the walk continues. Best foot forward!